10 October 2022

I am a digital immigrant. I first set foot on the political stage shortly after the iPhone began reshaping our daily digital habits. At the time, politicians understood “digital” to mean computers and social media, neither of which were chief among their concerns. Most people still struggled with the intricacies of their smartphones – or their computers, for that matter. Digital illiteracy was even seen as a badge of honour, while in-depth knowledge was something reserved for techies and grandchildren.

Since then, our world has moved into a new digital paradigm, where we coexist in a nearly permanent virtual realm. Current digital technologies make it possible to stay connected 24 hours a day, to retrieve information instantaneously, and to be involved in discussions in real time. Potentially, they could be used to create a virtual parliament made up of millions of citizens. Have our politicians and politics kept pace?

These developments have been met with a mixture of applause and reluctance. But why should politicians be resistant to the introduction of tools that allow them to develop closer bonds with their constituents? Let’s take a closer look at both sides of the argument, and examine why some people in government, be it civil servants or politicians, are still feeling hesitant.

e-Democracy: A disruption to politics as we know it 

e-democracy has tremendous potential to close the democratic gap, especially during the interval between elections. Citizens’ participation driven by e-democratic tools can help to bring the public at large closer to political decision makers. Think of it as a kind of continuous referendum. At a time when more and more constituents feel alienated from the politicians who represent them, this could help to open up new channels for dialogue. 

This is undoubtedly a major opportunity – but also an unprecedented disruption to the established way of doing things. Many leading politicians are either baby boomers or members of Generation X. For them, new technology still has to prove its value before being adopted. Moreover, many leaders from these generations see politics as a profession and a career, rather than a calling. A move towards more direct citizens’ involvement through e-democracy technologies could render the current political system redundant in the long term, or perhaps even sooner – turning thousands of political careers on their heads in the process. While some see this as a positive development, for many, it means the end of the world as they know it.

Inclusivity and neutrality in e-democracy

Beyond these threats to the established way of doing things, there are also legitimate concerns about the over-hasty introduction of digital democratic solutions. Chief among them is the question of accessibility. User-friendliness means different things to different people. The choice of instruments, software, platform, interface or language can ultimately lead to the exclusion of parts of society, e.g. senior citizens, but also digital non-natives – including many politicians and civil servants themselves.

During the early days of the internet, we tended to assume that technology was objective and neutral. It is after all non-human, and so not burdened with our human prejudices and biases. However, we have learned from experience that since technology is created by human beings, it often ends up reflecting their biases – and in the worst case can even amplify them.

This issue of neutrality is by no means simple to address. Increasing communication with the broader public is certainly a noble aim – but all communication depends on language and words. Words can have multiple layers of meaning, shifting their significance in different contexts. The way a question is phrased can introduce a bias into a conversation. Carefully chosen words can increase inclusivity – but conversely, the way we word things can also serve to exclude certain parts of society. In new forms of digital citizens’ participation, finding neutral wording will be a major challenge, and admits of no easy solutions.

Digital technologies may offer ways of closing the gap between politicians and the broader public. Yet used in the wrong way, they could end up causing an ever-larger divide. Think of Amazon or Meta only offering you more of the product you already like, keeping you enclosed with your bubble; or YouTube recommendations steering viewers to extremist, fringe content. Another issue could be the assembling of people with the same interests. Physical meetings have a different function in bringing people together and to assess politicians than digital meetings. The optimum is probably found in a mix of both worlds, with live meetings and a continuing digital discussion.

Privacy and security concerns 

This overview of issues causing friction in the uptake of e-democracy would not be complete without mentioning the issue of privacy. Although the right to privacy is implemented and valued in different ways in the EU, the general principle of anonymous voting is upheld throughout the bloc. An ironclad guarantee to privacy and transparency in the storage of data is necessary if voters, politicians and governments are to get behind new e-democracy solutions.

In a democracy, citizens must be guaranteed the right to cast their vote in secret. This is easy enough to do in a physical voting booth. But while on the one hand, e-democracy provides increased ease and convenience to voters, it’s important to ask whether a digital system can provide the same guaranteed secrecy.

Questions of security and privacy are rendered all the more complex by the fact that the development of e-democracy has varied dramatically in pace in different countries. While some EU states are on the forefront of digitalization, others lag far behind. The development of e-democracy tools must take these differences account.

Learning from the sceptics

Finally, it is necessary to take into account the varying level of willingness to adapt new digital solutions in different countries. For example, the average age of politicians and civil servants in Germany is almost 50, suggesting there are many baby boomers in charge who might not be very proficient in setting up or using digital systems. Setting up e-democracy systems demands in-depth knowledge investment in know-how by governments, civil servants and politicians – and this is only possible where the political class stand behind the new solutions. 

Currently, at least 30% (and probably considerably more) of European citizens, politicians and people working for the government are digital immigrants. The explosive sales of the first iPhone in 2007 show that disruption can turn the industry upside down from one day to the other, bringing with it a whole new range of possibilities. While some sceptics are merely reluctant digital immigrants, others raise legitimate concerns which need to be taken into account.

My personal story shows that every new development sees some people willing to accelerate towards a different future, while others put their foot firmly on the brake, hoping to remain in the familiar world of the past. Understanding both positions in politics is always the best way forward and is at the foundation of any (e-)democracy.

Judith Merkies is a lawyer and a former Member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands, currently residing in Germany. Her main focus is (disruptive / social) innovation and digitalization policy in the European Union. She works in (EU) government relations, is a moderator of political and tech events and has taught at the DHBW Mannheim on E-Government.

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